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Still Some Fight Left in Them

Patriotism and pensions keep troops over 50 in the military's reserve units, where green recruits are soaking up their savvy.

November 11, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In December, just before the Florida National Guard's 124th Infantry Regiment was mobilized for the war in Iraq, Sgt. James Flores' 23-year-old son asked him, "Dad, why do you have to do something like this at your age?" Flores, 49, replied, "Son, it's still my turn."

Flores was to report for active duty at noon, Dec. 27. At 10:15 that morning, he hurried into the office of a justice of the peace near Kissimmee, his fiancee in tow, to get a marriage license. The clerk said there was a three-day waiting period. "Ma'am, I can't wait that long," Flores said. "I'm going to war." The clerk replied, "Let me see what the judge says."

Twenty minutes later, he and his bride were married, and about an hour after that, Flores was an active-duty soldier, beginning the long journey to Iraq, where the 124th remains, having been in the war zone longer than any other U.S. unit.

A few days ago, resting on his cot after a nighttime patrol in the brutal streets of Baghdad, Flores, a grandfather, sat bolt upright: "It hit me all of a sudden. I said, 'Oh, Lord, I turn 50 tomorrow.' I never thought in my lifetime that I'd be at war at that age."

With his birthday, which he celebrated on another patrol, Flores dashed the notion that war belongs to only the young and joined a minority of servicemen and women who, at 50 and above, have gone to battle.

Fewer than 1% of U.S. troops are in the 50-to-59-year-old bracket, which makes up 12% of the nation's population.

While it is not unusual for senior officers and noncommissioned officers to achieve "senior citizen" status in the military -- Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition troops in Iraq, is 52 -- Flores is still one of the foot soldiers, pulling guard duty, eating MREs, staying in shape and, as best he can, thinking young.

"To tell you the truth, I don't see much difference between what I do and what a 19-year-old does," said Flores, who works two jobs as a cook back home in Kissimmee. "I passed the annual PT [physical training] test, and I saw some 22-year-olds who couldn't. That made me feel really proud."

Like Flores, most in the 50-and-over crowd are members of the National Guard or Reserves. With the regular Army downsized and stretched thin by commitments in places ranging from South Korea and the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq, members of the Guard and Reserves, once weekend warriors, are increasingly an integral part of the nation's active-duty forces. The Army's strength has fallen from 770,000 soldiers in 1989 to 480,000.

Nearly 38,000 National Guard troops and reservists are in the Middle East, deployed in the Iraq effort. The Guard's Iraq mission is by far the largest "peacetime" deployment in what it calls its 367-year history.

"What keeps these people in the military after they've hit 50, an age when a lot of people that old are thinking about security and retirement?" wondered Roy Martin, 71, former commanding general of the Maine Air National Guard's 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor.

"The common denominators that come to mind are patriotism, the financial rewards of a pension at 60, the esprit de corps of the unit, the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile," said Martin, interviewed in Maine. "They bring leadership and experience that comes with age. For instance, I've heard an instructor pilot in the Air Force might have something like 2,000 hours. Our guys are apt to have double that."

Jim Coles, a spokesman for the Army Reserves in Atlanta, said that when it comes to soldiers over 50, "we recognize that people that age aren't four-minute milers. But younger people look up to them. They're savvy.

"I remember one of Steve McQueen's last movies. He played an aging bounty hunter, and the trailer for the movie said, 'He may be slower, but don't turn your back.' "

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Vietnam veteran Clarence Kugler is, at 59, preparing to go off to another war soon, this one as a sergeant first class in the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion. He returned to the military, through the Army Reserves, in 1989 after more than a decade as a civilian. "This war will be my swan song," he said.

"I don't think anyone in the military in his 50s considers himself an average older person," Kugler said. "You've got to be motivated to stay in the game. I still get up and run five or six miles in the morning. I've done two Ironman triathlons and I've swum around the Statue of Liberty. When I do my morning run, once two guys help me off the truck and I'm on flat ground, I can run as fast as anybody. I'm hell on wheels on the flats.

"I was running with a young kid the other day in Miami. He told me his father was 41 and his grandfather 57. He said, 'How old are you?' I told him, 'I think your grandfather and I were probably in high school together.' The kid just stared at me."

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